The WALTHAM Petcare Institute is a global research and development site for Mars Petcare. We perform scientific studies to improve and innovate products and services to drive our Purpose : A BETTER WORLD FOR PETSTM.
For over 50 years, we have been advancing science to better understand our pets' needs and overall wellbeing. For example, we determined the amount of taurine that cats must have in their daily diets and how much vitamin A puppies can have. Both findings are used by international pet food regulatory bodies (FEDIAF, AAFCO and NRC) to inform guidelines for cat and dog diet formulations.
However, the way in which we approach research may not be as you expect.
Training our pets
We want to partner with our pets. But for this to happen, they need to have confidence to work with us. We invest a lot of time to train and interact with our pets, which is done through ‘positive reinforcement’ and rewards. This means that when the dog or cat performs the desired behaviour they are praised. Any unwanted behaviour is ignored, and never punished. Each cat and dog is different, so through spending time to understand what motivates them we ensure they receive the reward that they want. This could be food, but it could be playing with their favourite toy, or a belly scratch. We can gradually build this up so our pets are able to do more complex tasks when asked.
Our team of Associates that work with our pets are experts in ‘listening’ to their four legged partner. By constantly watching and reading the body language of the animal, they are able to spot the slightest behavioural cue that the cat or dog may not be comfortable with the situation. This will shape the rest of the session, and potentially their training plan. We can adapt our style to each individual pet- some pets are confident in a lot of situations and learn quickly, whereas others may need more time, or a different approach. We are fortunate to have the freedom to tailor activities to each pet.
Training for lifeskills
We use this same approach to develop life skills in our younger pets or to teach a new behaviour that will be used in a research study. For example, we prepare our pets to wear an Elizabethan collar as part of their life skills training. A majority of our pets on site are neutered they will need to wear this collar that prevents the animal from damaging the surgery wound whilst it heals. As we know our pets will be undergoing this routine operation, we make sure they are happy and comfortable to wear this special collar in advance through training. This makes the recovery less stressful for the pet.
Training for trials
We have recently published research and validation of a technique that allows us to take special photos of dogs’ teeth. To do this, our dogs were trained to sit very still whilst their handler moved their lips out of the way. Another person with a camera was then able to shine a light on the teeth and take a photograph, which could be used to measure how much plaque was there. Our pets were happy to partner with us for this research, and no sedation was needed. Find out more about this study here.
Our Caring science approach also drives our scientists to look for innovative ways to obtain the research data we need without compromising pet welfare. Coupled with reward based training, we believe that the results we generate offer greater benefits as they are more credible and relevant to pets globally.
Research involves collecting data. This could come from observing and recording behaviour, or biological samples from pets. But there are many approaches to doing this. Some examples of the ways in which we gather these samples demonstrates what we refer to as ‘caring science’.
- • Our dogs have been trained so they are happy for us to collect pee as they urinate, whilst our cats go to the toilet in specialised litter trays.
- • We’ve trained both cats and dogs to give us saliva samples by chewing on a cotton bud
- • We train our pets so they are comfortable with the steps involved with taking a blood sample. This means that when we do need a sample, they know what to expect and it minimises any stress.
- • And we can easily collect faeces- find out why these are valuable to our studies here.
In the UK, research involving animals is regulated by the Home Office through a process of licencing and frequent inspection. In addition to complying with legal regulations, we have our own Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body that ensures all our studies conform to the Mars Animal Research policy and the 3Rs of animal research. This means that we reduce the number of animals used for research, we continually refine and improve our methods and techniques and we replace the use of animals wherever possible (by using computer, laboratory simulations or people!).
But it’s not just training and research, the care for our pets is paramount every hour and every day that they are here. On our 100+ acre site in the Leicestershire countryside, we have plenty of space for our dogs to exercise and play off their leads. We also have areas with different agility equipment or for our pets to use their noses to hunt out hidden treats. Housing is designed with welfare as the highest priority, including breed size specific housing.
Our cats love to spend time lounging in their rooms. They have plenty of places to hide, sleep, climb and watch from, as well as toys for them to practice their stalking skills. Handlers spend time every day in each room playing with our cats and generally giving them plenty of attention.